‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby’: Tertullian’s not-so-subtle retort

On previous occasions I have discussed some common ethnic stereotypes that were at work when a given Greek or Roman author described the worldviews and practices of other peoples, and sometimes these views were reflected in novels as well (go here or here, for instance). Sometimes peoples outside of one’s own cultural group were viewed as inferior, barbarous, and dangerous. In particular, a common accusation against minority cultural groups was the claim that such “dangerous” people engaged in human sacrifice followed by a cannibalistic meal.

Judeans (Jews) and Christians were among the minority cultural groups accused of such fiendish activity. Thus, for instance, the Roman historian Dio Cassius (writing in the early third century) describes the revolt of Judeans in Cyrene, who were “destroying both the Romans and the Greeks”: he claims that “they would eat the flesh of their victims, make belts for themselves of their entrails, anoint themselves with their blood and wear their skins for clothing” (Roman History, 68.32.1-2 [Loeb translation]).

There were times when Christians, too, were on the receiving end of such ethnographic stereotypes which tried to underline just how dangerous certain peoples were. Minucius Felix‘s second century dialogue presents the view of a critic who claimed that the Christians’ rituals involved the following:

An infant, cased in dough to deceive the unsuspecting, is placed beside the person to be initiated. The novice is thereupon induced to inflict what seems to be harmless blows upon the dough, and unintentionally the infant is killed by his unsuspecting blows; the blood – oh, horrible – they lap up greedily; the limbs they tear to pieces eagerly; and over the victim they make league and covenant, and by complicity in guilt pledge themselves to mutual silence (Octavius 9.5-6 [Loeb translation]).

Tertullian, a second century Christian author from North Africa, responded to similar rumours regarding human sacrifice and cannibalism among Jesus-followers with some sarcasm:

‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby, nobody’s enemy, guilty of nothing, everybody’s child. . . catch the infant blood; steep your bread with it; eat and enjoy it’ (Apology 8.2 [Loeb translation]).

Tertullian tries to defend the reputation of Christians by drawing attention to how ludicrous he thought such accusations were and by striking to the heart of the reasons for such accusations. He gets at the “rationale” behind the accusations, so to speak. Namely, if one feels that some other group of people are dangerous or threatening, what better way to encapsulate that danger than in depicting the minority cultural group as murderers of “nobody’s enemy” and “everybody’s child”. If they’ll do this to an innocent child, goes the thinking, then imagine how dangerous they are to the rest of us as well. The notion of eating the human body, a child no less, is symbolic of destroying humanity or human society itself.

Similar patterns of demonizing “the other” have been at work throughout western cultural history.

6 thoughts on “‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby’: Tertullian’s not-so-subtle retort

  1. John Hardy

    Perhaps this demonization fits within the tradition of demonizing the ancient though long abandoned Canaanite practice of child sacrifice particularly by Punic colonists in various places around the Mediterranean.

    Here’s a quote from Maria Eugenia Aubet in her book The Phoenicians and the West – Politics, Colonies and Trade which also gives an ancient definition for the word “sardonic”:

    The classical sources attribute frequent holocausts of children to the Carthaginians in order to emphasize the harsh and cruel nature of these people and their Phoenician forefathers. ‘The Phoenicians, and more especially the Carthaginians, when they want some important project to succeed, promise to sacrifice a child to Cronos if their wish is fulfilled’. Clitarch and Diodorus also tell us that the sacrifice took place in front of a bronze statue of the god, with arms outstretched over a blazing hearth; the child slid down over the arms and fell. It seems that the victims were covered with a grinning mask and that is why, according to Clitarch, they died laughing and hence the term ‘sardonic’ (Sardinian) for a sarcastic smile.

  2. Phil H.

    Thanks for this, John. Earlier I had commented on the question of whether child sacrifice actually took place among the Carthaginians (who as you point out were originally settlers from Phoenicia). Phil H.

  3. Maureen

    You should probably mention the relationship of the old Roman anti-Christian rumors to the medieval Christian anti-Semitic rumors. The “blood libel” is pretty much exactly the same thing as the agape urban legend — babies, blood and all.

  4. Phil S

    I wonder if the mediaeval Christian anti-Semitic rumours have a precedent in Roman anti-Semitic rumours. I can’t think of a parallel off the top of my head, but can anyone else?

    Phil S.

  5. Nathan

    Hello, Dr. Harland. I’ve got just a quick question for you (and anyone else who may care to comment, for that matter): In regards to the allegations of infanticide and cannabalism reproached by Tertullian and Minucius Felix, might the gospel of Judas also allude to such allegations, when it characterizes certain of the proto-Orthodox as “slayers of children” (sec. 40; cf. 38)? I ask because the NGS version of the Judas gospel suggests in a footnote (n. 50), that infanticide of a spiritual sort is meant by “slayers of children,” that, apparently, the phrase should not be taken literally; but in reading the gospel several months back, when it was first published, in coming across that phrase I was immediately reminded of Tertullian’s and Minucius Felix’s comments. Hence, my question. Thanks.


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